A long time ago, when I was still living in New York, I had dinner with comedian Sandra Bernhard and a mutual friend. Being a fan of her uncategorizable cabarets, I said I’d like to see her on Broadway one day. With characteristic frankness, she replied that she needed what Lily Tomlin was fortunate enough to have—her own Jane Wagner.
Bernhard’s comment resonated in my head as I watched the slow revival of Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe on the Mark Taper Forum. The one-woman show that saw Tomlin triumph on Broadway in 1985 was adapted for Cecily Strong, who has been one of the shining lights of Saturday Night Live for the past 10 years.
The problem is one that a tailor could spot immediately. A theatrical costume made specifically for one artist will never go as well with another, no matter how extensive the changes.
Growing up, I was a die-hard fan of Tomlin’s sketch comedy. Whenever Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In was shown on television in the 1970s, I would breathlessly await the appearance of Edith Ann, the defiantly philosophical five-and-a-half-year-old in the giant rocking chair, or Ernestine, the bullying switchboard operator, whose “ringing” and passive-aggressive snorts were my idea of comedy heaven. A chameleon with a sneaky subversive streak, Tomlin contained a crowd of crazy people.
In The Search for Signs, Wagner showcased the wide range of Tomlin’s talents both as a popular comedian and as an Oscar-nominated actress for her performance in Robert Altman’s Nashville. The play is full of offbeat characters – most notably Trudy, the bag lady who has lost her mind and in the process has made contact with aliens curious about the higher consciousness on Earth.
But tongue-in-cheek social commentary is interwoven with the broader shtick. The humor represents a perfect marriage of Wagner’s observational wit and Tomlin’s dry madness. Trudy asks, “What is reality anyway? Nothing but a collective hunch.” The voice behind those words belongs to one of the more thoughtful partnerships in contemporary comedy.
Strong takes on the crazier characters – Chrissy, the aerobics fanatic constantly trying to boost her lackluster self-esteem; Agnus, the fear-ridden “punk poet kid” who lashes out at the world that spurns her; Kate, the Manhattan socialite suffering from terminal boredom at a hair salon—on a less over-the-top note. Stupidity is kept in check, but at the cost of insane swing.
Male figures make strutting cameos, but the play devotes itself to surveying a limited cross-section of women. These characters are full of pathos but made for laughs.
By playing out her most notable quirks, Tomlin differentiated this parade of misfits and strays for her audience. Strong normalizes these soul seekers, endowing each with aspects of their own genius personality. Her caricatured edges have been sanded down, but they begin to blend in a compassionate blur.
Wagner condensed the play into one act for this revival, which premiered at the Shed in New York late last year. The rewrite focuses on material in the deeper second half of the original version. When we first meet Lyn, she’s riding into the future with the women’s movement, along with Edie and Marge, her best friends and support system. The landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion has strengthened this sisterhood, but progress has not lived up to its promise.
Edie, a radical lesbian journalist who is fired after Rupert Murdoch buys her newspaper, is working on a book called What’s Left of the Left. Marge, dealing with the aftermath of a rape, develops a drinking problem and meets a macabre end with a macrame planter.
Desperate to balance a meaningful career with being a wife and mother, Lyn is weighed down by her husband’s self-pampering sensibilities, whose personal ethics are not as impeccable as his political commitments. Lyn’s epiphany – “If I had known it would be like having everything, I might have been willing to settle for less” – sums up the journey from the hopeful days of the liberation movement to consumerism and the individualism that came with it in a depressing way followed.
Strong brings a glowing humanity to this roller coaster of history. The warmth of her smile invites you to experience life behind these theatrical snaps. But the writing cannot withstand the Czech scrutiny. The weirdness at the heart of the show is unnecessarily muted.
The production, directed by Leigh Silverman, is touching and a little boring. The scenic design by Christine Jones and Mary Hamrick – consisting of a carpeted stage, two cubes and an unmagical arc – has a dampening effect. Strong might as well perform in a converted basement.
Sound effects are used instead of props. At Wednesday’s opening, late in production, there was an error between a gesture and the accompanying sound. Strong took note of the moment with mischievous subtlety, to the delight of the audience. I hadn’t quite realized the extent of the torpor until this Snafu awakened the house.
When The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe revived on Broadway in 2000, 15 years after its premiere, the show felt dated. For a contemporary comedy, 15 years is an eternity.
The world has changed seismically since the turn of the millennium. At the mention of erogenous zones, gestalt therapy, assertiveness training, jazzercise, bataka bats, and geodesic dome houses, I didn’t find myself able to muster much nostalgic amusement. Are pantyhose still sold in egg packs? At times I felt like I was in a reverie of old YouTube commercials, despite the added Elon Musk joke.
The last burst of sentimental wisdom that Tomlin could barely muster at the time is undeserved. What Strong needs is exactly what Bernhard identified for herself – her own Jane Wagner. This daring comic, whose goober the clown sketch on last year’s Saturday Night Live made a strong comment on abortion, belongs to a different era of comedy and feminism from Wagner and Tomlin and deserves its own vehicle.
“The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”
Where:Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA
When: 8 p.m Tuesday to Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Saturday, 1:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., Sunday. Ends October 23rd. (Call for exceptions.)
Tickets: $35-$120 (subject to change)
The information: (213) 628-2772 orcentertheatregroup.org
Duration:90 minutes without a break
COVID Protocol:Visit centertheatregroup.org/safety for current and updated information.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-09-30/search-for-signs-of-intelligent-life-cecily-strong-lily-tomlin Review: SNL’s Cecily Strong takes on beloved one woman show